Before the Convicts – The Pydairrerme
Tasmanian Aborigines have occupied the island of Tasmania for over 30,000 years, perhaps as much as 40,000. At the time of the British occupation of Tasmania, in 1803, the Tasman Peninsula was occupied by the Pydairrerme ( Pie – Dare – Rer – Ma) the most southerly group of the Eastern Tasmanian people. From bones found at Eaglehawk Neck around the turn of the nineteenth century and later carbon-dated, we know that the Pydairrerme had been on the Peninsula for at least 5,000 years. As the Eastern Tasmanian people were consumed in a holocaust of European violence, disease and kidnapping in the 1820s, the survivors consolidated on the north of the east coast, in a resistance group known to the settlers as the Oyster Bay Tribe. By 1830, when a logging camp was set up at Port Arthur, the settled districts of Van Diemen’s Land were aflame with conflict and the Pydairrerme were no longer in occupation of the Peninsula.
In September of the same year, Lieutenant Governor George Arthur, urged by the free settlers of Van Diemen's Land, proclaimed the 'Black Line'. This extraordinary undertaking was designed to drive the Tasmanian Aborigines permanently away from the settled regions and to provide a final solution to the conflict which had become known as The Black War.
Contingents of soldiers, settlers and convicts - all armed - were set up in a line, supposedly stretching completely across the parts of Tasmania occupied by the British. They were to march south and east, driving the Tasmanians before them until the indigenous inhabitants were contained on the Tasman Peninsula, which had been designated earlier as an area of Aboriginal occupation. How this was to co-exist with the recently proclaimed logging camp at Port Arthur is not explained. The operation, however, was abandoned after six frustrating weeks and, at its close, one old man and a boy had been captured and three other Aboriginal people killed. The Tasmanians and the hunting dogs they had adopted from the British had slipped through the net. They were, however, not to remain free for much longer. Faced with this huge deployment of force against them, the remaining Tasmanians allowed themselves to be brought in – peaceably, in the main – by an evangelical preacher, George Augustus Robinson. They were shipped to Flinders Island in Bass Strait where, predictably, they rapidly succumbed to disease (and, perhaps, ennui) in a completely unaccustomed and unwelcome, sedentary life-style.
The Pydairrerme, like all Australian Aboriginal people, designed their movements to coincide with seasonal resources. In a dry year, summer and autumn would be spent on the grassy interior plains of Tasmania, hunting large game such as kangaroo and emu. In winter and spring, however, the band lived on the Peninsula and subsisted mainly on seafood such as crayfish, mussels, oysters and abalone. In southern Tasmania, scale-fish were not eaten, which has led to theories about the Tasmanians being ‘mal-adapted’ to their environment. Another piece of evidence used to proclaim the Tasmanians as ‘primitive’ is their simple tool-kit. The Tasmanian tool-kit was not, as is some-times stated, the simplest in Australia, and the maritime Tasmanians designed the most sea-worthy water-craft of any in the whole continent. Like all hunter-gatherer people, their tool-kit was the simplest they could use to fully exploit the various food resources. The boats were used to visit off-shore islands to hunt seals and gather eggs.
The work of gathering shellfish and diving for lobster was done exclusively by the women who made wooden chisels and woven baskets to capture and carry their prey. They insulated themselves against the cold water by rubbing their bodies with kangaroo or seal fat. It is interesting to note that in other cold-water societies where diving is a part of food-gathering, such as the Ainu of Japan or the Tierra del Fuegans, the women always do the diving.
After the various molluscs had been cooked and eaten, the shells were discarded into mounds which grew huge over the millennia that the Pydairrerme occupied the Peninsula. All such places that bear witness to the activities of Aboriginal people are important to today's Tasmanian Aboriginal community, and are protected under the Aboriginal Relics Act 1975. These collections of shells are known as middens and they were used during the convict days as a convenient resource. The shells were loaded into boats and transported to kilns where they were heated to obtain lime, which was then used to make plaster and mortar for building and as an agricultural fertiliser.
One of the places where middens were exploited in this way is still known as Lime Bay and is a popular camping park. By the evidence of the still visible middens, the present day holiday-makers camp right where the Pydairrerme once did. Lime Bay is about five kilometres past the Coal Mines Historic Site on a good dirt road. Another beautiful place to get a good sense of the Aboriginal occupation of this region is Fortescue Bay on the eastern shore of the Peninsula – again, still a popular camping spot but, again, down a dirt road.
As soon as convict transportation ceased in 1853, certain sections of society in Van Diemen’s Land wanted the world to forget the colony's convict past: they wanted to be 'free, white and independent'. To assist in the creation of this collective amnesia, the authorities changed place-names. In 1855 Van Diemen's Land officially became Tasmania and thirty years later Port Arthur was re-named Carnarvon after the Secretary of State for the colonies.
When it came time to 'wipe the convict stain' from the other convict stations on the Peninsula, pleasant-sounding Aboriginal names were chosen but in a rather confused fashion. The Cascades probation station became Koonya, a word which appears in no Aboriginal lexicon and is probably a corruption of 'Koonah', meaning kangaroo rat. Wedge Bay became Nubeena which means crayfish - but in the language of the people of North West Tasmania. Norfolk Bay was changed to Taranna (wallaby) and the old invalid station at Impression Bay became Premaydena. This, a least, was a word the Pydairrerme would have been familiar with, but probably perplexed at its new use: Premaydena was the Pydairrerme's name for the land around Port Arthur.